Dionysus Torn to Pieces: or, Being the Allergic Pagan

As I am sitting here struggling to breathe because of my allergies which have turned into a cold, and I thought of a poem by Robert Graves, one of my favorites:

Poised in air between earth and paradise
Paradise and earth, confess which pull
Do you feel stronger? Is it of homesickness
Or of passion? Would you rather be loyal or wise?
How are these choices reconcilable?
– Robert Graves, “An East Wind”

The poem is about the conflict between the longing to transcend life (which Graves associates with paradise, homesickness, and loyalty) in and the longing to live life (which Graves associates with earth, passion, and wisdom).  I’m sure its no coincidence that I thought of this poem while I am sick.

I’ve written on the introduction to this blog:

My seasonal allergies mean that at those times of the year I most want to worship outside, it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do so. This irony is a metaphor for an essential conflict at the core of psyche, between the desire for communion with nature on the one hand and the desire to transcend nature on the other.

While the title of this blog and the header are intended to be somewhat humorous, the impact of my allergies on my spirituality over the course of my life is actually quite serious.  I’ve had allergies my whole life and it has been largely untreated until my adult years.  In addition to allergies to pollen, weeds, grass … basically anything green, I also am allergic to cats and dogs.  And we always had both cats and dogs growing up.

When you have allergies, you can’t breathe normally.  It is easy to take breath for granted, until you don’t have it.  You also feel like you are walking around in a fog.  Obviously I can’t smell, which means I can’t taste.  My appetite is diminished.  Even my sense of touch seems muted somehow.   It feels like there is an invisible film over everything.  I feel disconnected from everything.  If the most essential Neopagan experience is one of connectedness, then allergies can pose a real difficulty.  (It’s no coincidence that breathing exercises are such an important part of Pagan practice — as well as many other traditions.)

I wonder sometimes if my predisposition to escapism and transcendental religion in my early years was was not related somehow to my allergies.  When life is one big oxygen-deprived fog, it is natural to want to escape into fantasy or long for a transcendent heaven.  Gradually though, as I left the Christian religion of my upbringing behind, I came to realize that my only “sin” was not loving life, this life.  As Albert Camus writes: “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”  (from “Summer in Algiers”).

I Want to be Left Behind

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not to merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but to love it.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

I eventually came to see that what I needed was not transcendence, not escape from life, but to experience life more fully, more intensely.  To live deep and to suck the marrow out of life, like Thoreau says, and not when I come to die, discover I had not lived.  Vitality, that’s the word.  Psychologists call it eros or libido, but it is more than sexual energy.  It is life itself, “life abundant” in the words of Jesus.  D.H. Lawrence describes it well in one of my favorite quotations:

“The old idea of the vitality of the universe was evolved long before history begins, and elaborated into a vast religion before we get a glimpse of it. When history does begin, we see evidence of one underlying religious idea : the conception of the vitality of the cosmos, the myriad vitalities in wild confusion, which still is held in some sort of array : and man, amid all the glowing welter, adventuring, struggling, striving for one thing, life, vitality, more vitality : to get into himself more and more of the gleaming vitality of the cosmos. That is the treasure. The active religious idea was that man, by vivid attention and subtlety and exerting all his strength, could draw more life into himself, more life, more and more glistening vitality, till he became shining like the morning, blazing like a god.”
– D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places

Etruscan mural, Tomb of the Triclinium in Tarquinia (ca. 470 B.C.E.) -- Lawrence wrote the passage above after seeing these murals

And this is what Paganism does for me: it helps me draw more life into myself.  Still, there is the part of me that longs for transcendence, for escape.  This conflict is at the core of me, I think.  And it comes to the fore when I am sick.

I just came across this quote by Nietzsche that I think expresses this conflict and may  help me put being ill in perspective:

“Isn’t the pagan cult a form of thanksgiving and affirmation of life? Mustn’t its highest representation be an apology and deification of life? The type of a well-turned-out and delightfully overflowing spirit! The type of spirit that assimilates whatever is contradictory and questionable in existence, and redeems it! Here I put the Dionysus of the Greeks: the religious affirmation of life, the whole of life, with nothing denied or separated off; (typical – that the sex act arouses profundity, mystery, reverence). Dionysus versus the “crucified”: there you have the contrast. It is not a difference with respect to martyrdom – it is only that martyrdom has a different sense. Life itself – its eternal overflowing and return – produces agony, destruction and the will towards extermination. In the other case, suffering – the “crucified as the guiltless one” – counts as an objection to this life, as the formula for its condemnation. One can guess: the problem is about the meaning of suffering, whether it has a Christian sense or a tragic sense. In the former case, it is intended to be the way to a holy being; in the latter case, being is counted as holy enough, to justify even a tremendous amount of suffering. The tragic person affirms even the most severe suffering: he is strong, full, and deifying enough for it; the Christian negates even the happiest lot on earth: he issufficiently weak, poor, disinherited, to suffer from life in every form of it he encounters. The god on the cross is a curse against life, an indication to be redeemed from it; – Dionysus broken into pieces, though, is a promise of life: it will be eternally reborn and will return home from destruction.”
– Nietzsche (notebook excerpt from March–June 1888, §1052)

"Torment of Pentheus", House of the Vetti, Pompeii -- Pentheus is torn apart by Maenads in effigy of Dionysus

Nietzsche says the paganism is life-affirming, and therefore a pagan divinity, like Dionysus, must represent the acceptance of all of life, not just the bright and the creative, but also the dark and the destructive, suffering as well as happiness.  For life itself, Nietzsche observes, produces pain and destruction as a part of its “eternal overflowing and return”.  He contrasts Dionysus with Christ, who for Nietzsche represent the abnegation of life.  Suffering from the Christian perspective is to be endured as a tempering fire that purifies the soul for the next life.  But Dionysus represents this life as an end in itself.  Both Christ and Dionysus were sacrificed.  But while Christ’s death is meant to be a promise of transcendence of or escape from life, the death of Dionysus is only the promise that this life will rise up and overflow once again.  Life is not to be endured so that we might escape it.  Life is to be experienced, the joy and the pain, as deeply as we dare.

Translating that idea to my present circumstances then, my illness is not something to be gotten over or escaped; it is part of life, something to be lived through.  I am Dionysus torn to pieces.  I embrace life in its eternal overflowing and return. So this is my prayer, in my time of suffering:

The god on the cross is a curse on life,
a signpost to seek redemption from life;
Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life:
it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction.

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